“It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The Lord your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness, and to fulfill the oath he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Deuteronomy 9:5
A close look at the pertinent passages of Scripture shows that God ordained the conquest of Canaan with a purpose. God was bringing just recompense for the ‘wickedness’ of the peoples of the land. Long before this, God had told Abraham the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet complete. God had allowed sin to run its full course. We might wonder how the Canaanites felt about God’s wrath. The one statement about the conquest recorded from a Canaanite came from a king who acknowledged the righteous execution of God’s justice – “As I have done, so God has repaid me” Judges 1:7
The primary reason for the thorough ferocity of the Hebrew conquest was this – God was demolishing systems of false worship to keep the singular devotion of His people and the holiness of His name. Almost every passage describing the rationale behind ousting the peoples living in the land offers this reason – Canaanite worship would swiftly turn the Hebrews away from following God to serve other gods.
Joshua and Moses both voiced the same God-given rationale for the amount of violence of the conquest – it was, at the core, annihilation of false worship. God had mandated the destruction so that Israel would never mention the name of their gods, or serve them, or bow down to them. While there are difficulties in fully understanding this part of the story of God’s people, one thing is clear about the conquest – the point, was pure worship.
The point of the invasion was not that Israel deserved someone else’s homeland. God told Israel clearly that they weren’t special or favoured because of their intrinsic righteousness or their great nobility. Israel repeatedly heard that God would destroy them just as swiftly if they turned away from His worship to other gods.
One instance makes this constant purpose of God clear – the rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea. Spies were to check out the land and the people. Ten of the spies spooked the entire people, touching off a hysterical rebellion for self-preservation. God was ready to destroy the entire people and start over with Moses, making out of him another people greater and mightier than the Hebrews.
Moses actually argues with God, bringing up, as he had in a previous instance, that the nations were watching. They had heard something of God’s name which could be falsified by what God was about to do.
“But Moses said to God, “The Egyptians are going to hear about this! You delivered this people from Egypt with a great show of strength, and now this? The Egyptians will tell everyone. They’ve already heard that you are God, that you are on the side of this people, that you are present among them, that they see you with their own eyes in your Cloud that hovers over them, in the Pillar of Cloud that leads them by day and the Pillar of Fire at night. If you kill this entire people in one stroke, all the nations that have heard what has been going on will say, ‘Since God couldn’t get these people into the land which he had promised to give them, he slaughtered them out in the wilderness.’” – Numbers 14:15-16
A long pause from heaven, and then God said that he had pardoned Israel according to the prayer of Moses. Then God raised His voice, I think, using some of the strongest expressions possible —
“But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord.” Numbers 14:21